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Is Your Job Just Work?

Or is it just work? A new book from Harvard's Russell Muirhead examines the new striving for careers that promise more than a paycheck.

In the years after Russell Muirhead left college, he noticed an unexpected trend among his classmates: career restlessness. "Many were changing careers, going back to school, taking extended leaves of absence. They wriggled into and out of enviable jobs," says Muirhead, an associate professor of government at Harvard University.

This was something new, a generational change, Muirhead realized. He recalled a conversation with a friend who had told his father he was unhappy in his job.

"That's why they call it work," the father replied.

"Something profound had changed between the time his father made his career and today's world of work," Muirhead believes. Today, many of us want more than a secure job at a prestigious firm with a fat paycheck. "So many I know long for something more: they want work they find fulfilling and meaningful… Today we want to call our work "good work."

But that yearning raises intriguing questions about our expectations of work, the role of the employer in creating meaningful work for employees, and the whole notion of how work is divvied up in society. If everyone is off doing good work, who cleans the sewers?

His new book on this subject, Just Work was recently published. Muirhood participated in this HBS Working Knowledge e-mail interview.

Mallory Stark: The title of your book Just Work has a double meaning. Could you elaborate?

Russell Muirhead: The double meaning gets at the two faces of work. One is the side of necessity. Work is something compulsory, not merely an option or a lifestyle choice. The other side is more hopeful. It invites us to find work that is fulfilling, that is part of a good life.

On a particularly nasty day at work, when we complain about our jobs, someone—a boss, a coworker, a spouse, or most often, a voice inside us—says, "just work!" Complaints and criticism don't get the job done." Someone has to do the work, and that someone is you.

At the same time, it is natural—even inescapable—to criticize, to evaluate. Necessary as it is, we try to give an account of what we do every day that makes sense of it in terms of who we are and what we want from life. Exactly because it is necessary, because we return to it day after day, we cannot long resist trying to understand what is good and bad about our work. And we put together some idea of what work would be like if it answered our highest hopes and gave us what we deserve—if it were just work.

The two sides are in tension with each other. Perfectly just work would be work we choose and control, work we could leave behind if we pleased. Justice points toward freedom. But reality reminds us that work cannot be entirely escaped or fashioned exactly as we would have it. The hand of necessity bears ever down.

I don't think either side can ever overcome the other. Necessity cannot suffocate evaluation and hope; criticism cannot master necessity.

"Just work" seems to capture this tense combination, which makes work what it is.

The title has one more meaning, by the way. We might say that work is just work, as in only or merely work, nothing to make too big a deal about. But in America at least, and I doubt only in America, it is difficult to hem work into a small and insignificant part of life. It takes too much time, too much energy, to think of it as something trivial. And culturally, we make a big thing of work. It is a source of status, of personal identity, and a sign that we are contributing to the common good. Because of this, we cannot really help taking it seriously, and asking as much from it as it asks from us.

Q: When is work fitting?

A: First, let me explain why I talk about fitting work.

As I mentioned, there is a tendency to think of perfect work as being perfectly free. Take Marx: in his utopia, no one would ever be confined to a single work role: we could hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner, without ever being a hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.

It's a powerful image. We can be what we are, not squeeze ourselves into the roles the workplace imposes on us. Many people have hoped over the years that new productive technologies would free us from the confines of work roles, of one career dominating over the whole of life. At the extreme, justice would bring the 'end of work.'

Alluring as this is—we all contain more than any one job can express—I think it is based in profound mistakes.

It would require enforcing a dour and frugal equality on everyone, which in turn would lead to inhuman and large-scale violence. The socialist experiments of the twentieth century make this abundantly clear.

The perfectly free life, with no roles, would not be a very happy one.

Also, this image of perfect freedom neglects the fact that many attractive and enjoyable human goods require some discipline and practice. Our enjoyment of cooking or poker or baseball is amplified when we are good at them. It is hard to live a happy life if we develop no talent whatsoever. Becoming good at one thing precludes doing other things. The perfectly free life, with no roles, would not be a very happy one.

This is why, when it comes to just work, I talk about fitting work rather than a world of perfect freedom and the end of work.

But what is fitting work?

I think about fitting work in the same way we might think about other practices, often drawn from arts, games, or sports, like piano playing or baseball.

The first thing to ask is whether we have the right aptitudes. No aptitude, no fit. If you're tone deaf, music is probably not for you. This kind of fit is what society needs: from a social point of view, each person should do that job that his or her aptitude fits best. This way, tasks get done quickly and efficiently.

That's no small matter (how often do we wish to do what we are no good at!), but there is a second thing to ask about fit. There are lots of activities we might have an aptitude for, but cannot manage to identify with or enjoy. You might be very good at accounting.Yet you might not be able to think of yourself as an accountant, to take any enjoyment from the activity, to connect it in any deep way to who you are. Fitting work in the deepest sense means having an ability to realize and to enjoy the distinctive goods that your work offers. This kind of fit is what matters most on a personal level.

Fitting work asks something from us, and something from our work. We need to open ourselves to the possibility that our work offers something distinctive, something good and enjoyable that is hard to get in other ways. That means not thinking of it always as a chore, but thinking of it also as something like a game or a sport. This is easier with some kinds of work than with others. It might be impossible in the cases of the most repetitive or mundane or exhausting work. Some work—sweatshop labor comes to mind, at the extreme—cannot be said to fit anyone. But with lots of jobs, it is more possible than one might suppose at first glance.

Q: Should employers be concerned about creating just work for their employees, and, if so, how do they go about it?

A: Of course. Not to take any concern treats employees like cogs in a machine instead of like human beings. And unjust work—as we have known since the turn of the century—breeds the sort of sullenness, pain, and despair that ultimately saps what employers care about most: the bottom line.

How they go about it should always be sensitive to the specifics at hand. But in general, it means making room in the workplace for respect, variety, and responsibility.

Without respect for the fact that every employee is an independent human being with his or her own ends, that no one is simply an instrument to be used, there is no hope for fitting work or a just workplace.

The tendency to control what employees do—a necessary managerial instinct—is easily inflamed to the point where it suffocates variety and responsibility. Jobs need to be designed so they draw on more than one skill, and can be approached as integrated and complex tasks. People are both happier, and our human powers more activated, when we are challenged—and our work is more fitting.

Over-management saps responsibility. We care less for what is common than for what is our own. Products and outcomes need to be connected to individuals, so they can take praise and blame. Without that, our pride turns against our work, rather than attaching itself to work. No pride, no motivation. But pride requires an occasion for achievement.

For any good manager, this is common sense. A more radical and more risky approach would be to design work around the concept of a game or a sport. This means not simply giving people the chance to win or be recognized (as in the employee of the month), but creating jobs that integrate skills and tasks in a way that is absorbing. It means giving up on some oversight and control, and trusting that fitting work generates its own motivation.

Q: American culture and society have been built on the "work ethic," which essentially means 'work hard.' Will this ethos stand in the way of us moving toward a world of just work?

A: The work ethic does mean 'work hard' but it does not mean only that. It asks us to work hard for a reason.

Originally, this reason had to do with undertaking something of God's plan for human things, with demonstrating God's grace to ourselves and to our neighbors. Today the reason has more to do with the idea that work can be fulfilling, that it can connect in a profound way to our own identity. In both cases, the work ethic speaks to the most central and powerful purposes we serve—sometimes transcendent, sometimes earthly.

When work seems disconnected from our own central purposes, the work ethic loses its reason. Work is no longer something worthy of our devotion. And the work ethic, as a result, appears fragile.

The work ethic places a heavy burden on the working life. By asking a lot of work, it points us toward, not away from, a world of just work.

Q: What can we learn from the 19th century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, regarding the fulfillment and promise of work?

A: John Stuart Mill put the promise of fulfillment at the center of liberalism—at a time when liberalism meant limiting government for the sake of protecting freedom, not funding the entitlements of the New Deal state. Liberal government gave each person the opportunity to cultivate his or her own individuality.

And John Stuart Mill was also a snob. He thought individuality was difficult, and that many were not made of the sort of stuff that would allow them to realize it.

Since Mill's time, we have broadened the promise of fulfillment: for everyone, a fulfilling career. What Mill can remind us is that fulfillment is not an easy thing. It takes bravery—and talent. Extending the promise of fulfillment in a casual way, as if we could easily find it, may be a recipe for a lot of disappointment.

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Mallory Stark is a career information librarian at Baker Library.

The New Career Advice

by Russell Muirhead

"Do what you love—the money will follow." This advice, common enough, would have seemed strange and imprudent only two generations ago. The doctrine that we should be devoted to work is enduring and reflects a long association with the Protestant ethic. But the notion that we should be passionate about our work, or that if we follow our passions the rewards will take care of themselves, is something new. What would have been audacious fifty years ago is now a staple of career advice.1 This contemporary advice embraces the aspiration and even the expectation of finding work that "fits" us in some important way. If the expectation is optimistic, still the aspiration to find work that fits our disposition and interests, our passions and purposes, points to an important standard that bears both on individual choices and on larger understandings of justice.

That we should avoid work to which we are ill suited, that we should not be miscast in one of our life's main activities or stuck serving purposes we cannot embrace, is of obvious importance. In this respect, the concept of fit addresses the basic question "Why is it right that I am doing this?" This is a personal question, though not a trivial one, as it reflects an understanding of both who we are and what we deserve. Its answer hinges on an understanding of how we might fit our work. In one sense, work is a good fit when it calls on the aptitudes and talents through which we can best contribute to society (or the market). When our abilities are aligned with the tasks or jobs society needs performed, work fits. This "social fit," between individual aptitudes and the tasks society generates, is necessary if people are to be moderately successful and societies efficient and productive.

But this is only part of what the idea of fit involves. Even when we are able to do our work well, we might still find that the work fails to engage our interests, purposes, and most distinctive capacities. To map our aptitudes onto social needs is one thing; to find work fulfilling is another. A "personal fit" with work, where work contributes to our own development and expression, may elude us even when we fit our work from a social perspective. The difficulty of combining social fit with personal fit reflects a provocative question at the heart of justice: Can we each get our due while at the same time contributing to the common good? When some do work that fits them badly yet contributes to socially important ends, another version of this question surfaces: Why ought some be constrained so that others or the whole may thrive? At the other extreme is an ideal of fit with work "where love and need are one."2 According to this ideal, work is aligned with our purposes or good development; it engages us in the service of ends we endorse, expresses something of who we are, or develops our powers in ways we experience as good.

We often experience work as disconnected from such ideals as justice or freedom, and more like a necessity we would be better off without. In the face of the everyday difficulty of work, in defiance of the distractions we daily seek, we might say: just work! In this tone, the injunction to "just work" demands that we suspend doubt and dissatisfaction, and reconcile ourselves to what must be done, to the task at hand. At the same time, work demands too much and its connection to our identity is too profound to conceive of it only as the dictate of necessity, a strategy for survival. Richard Sennett, for instance, has illuminated the way work's predictability and the accumulation of skill offer—or, if they are absent, corrode—the basis for a unified identity over a lifetime.3 For us, work is rarely just work in the diminutive sense of being only work. It is not something we can confine to a small and insignificant part of life. And (at least in America), we tend to take work seriously, too seriously to simply suspend deeper evaluation.

This raises important questions. What should we expect from work? Should the promise of work be restricted to its instrumental value—to the wages it brings? Is it right to invest work with the deeper promise of fulfillment? The answer to these questions depends not only on our taste and experience but also on the way we understand what it would mean for work to be fulfilling. This book argues, in short, that work is both fulfilling and just when it fits us.

Reprinted electronically by permission of the publisher from Just Work by Russell Muirhead, pp.1-3, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.


1. Marsha Sinetar, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow: Choosing Your Right Livelihood (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1989).

2. Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in the Mud," in The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1979), 277.

3. Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998).